The annual goat races give Lightning Ridge, in western NSW, more than one reason to celebrate.
Story By Nick Cook
Tahlee Leeson smiles nervously as she grips the reins. The eight-year-old sits in a miniature-racing gig. It looks like a wheelchair that’s been converted into a chariot and the goat to which it is attached – a wiry old billy – is more than a little skittish. Its eyes roll wildly in its head as it stares down the length of Lightning Ridge’s main street, lined two and three deep with people who have travelled great distances to the tiny outback town to see this spectacle.
There is one last moment of suspense-filled anticipation, then the starter’s gun sounds the official beginning of the 31st annual Great Goat Races with a thunderclap bang. The noise startles the six goats that scatter in every direction, except towards the finishing line. Tahlee’s billy does a quick 180-degree turn and charges backwards as the stewards, mostly teenage boys who have only just received their first brief instructions, scramble to get out of the way. It’s difficult to tell if her screams are from exhilaration or terror as she is dragged over the top of the gigs that stand nearby, waiting to be used in the second race. By some miracle she manages to keep her seat and eventually the stewards grab the goat by the horns and finally point it in the right direction.
This opening scene sets the tone for the entire chaotic event. The reins each rider clings to are little more than tokenistic as they offer no real control over the wild goats. They were caught near Brewarrina only 24 hours earlier and have no idea where they are or what it is they’re supposed to do.
The races progress in fits and starts. The goats often stop in the middle of the track, looking around in startled confusion until the following stewards scare them back into motion. Then they take off with a rush and where they end up is anybody’s guess – more often than not they drag their helpless riders over the gutters and into the laughing crowd.
In the fourth heat a goat bursts clear through the barrier and into the yard of John Souvaliotis, who has lived on the main street for 34 years and seen every race. He and his wife laugh helplessly as half a dozen young stewards chase the goat and its rider in circles around their yard. Several times the race leader gets distracted, charges the crowd and is overtaken. Victory comes almost by accident whenever a goat happens to wander across the finishing line.
In short, it’s a massive amount of fun.
The races take place on Easter Saturday every year and mark the end of the quiet summer period when even many seasoned locals flee south to escape the oppressive heat. It is the official beginning of the tourist season, which provides an injection of cash that is more desperately needed these days than ever.
Like most small towns throughout rural and remote Australia, Lightning Ridge’s economy is struggling, though for more than just the usual reasons of drought and emigration to larger population centres.
This story excerpt is from Issue #53
Outback Magazine: June/July 2007